Return of the Sportsball

Are sports fans ever going to get their primary programming outlet back?

The 2019-2020 sports season came to a screeching halt in March as the whole world hunkered down to brace themselves for COVID-19.  March Madness evaporated. Japan has postponed the Summer Olympics in Tokyo for a year. Baseball may start up on July 23 or 24th. The NBA may finish their season starting on July 30th or 31st. College and pro football will return this fall, or maybe not. All dates are tentative and uncertain.

Assuming these returns aren’t pipedreams, that means sports fans will have gone about four and a half months without their regularly scheduled programming. What has this done to them? Sports programming is the primary source of entertainment for many people, especially, though not exclusively, men. It’s a social activity for millions of people that vanished overnight. How has this affected people?

My own husband, who will watch anything from golf to baseball to sumo wrestling, has changed his weekend habits. Pre-COVID he would split his weekend hours between sports viewing and home maintenance. Now he’s fixing everything. Which I appreciate, but I also worry. Shouldn’t he be relaxing more?

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Without sports on TV, what are the guys from ‘The League’ doing? (photo courtesy of FXX).

I spoke to a few friends to get their perspective and the consensus is: “It sucks.” For Matt Petersen, a Senior IT Project Manager for True Value Hardware, the pandemic has changed not only his viewing habits but his social and physical outlets. “We go bowling once a month, that got shut down. I go golfing twice a month, that got shut down.” He’s grateful that his golf league is starting up soon, but he still finds himself passing the time at home with less satisfying programming, waiting for sports to come back. He and his wife have used some of the spare time to fix up their house in Northern Illinois.

As Chicago actor and filmmaker Sean Patrick Leonard points out, sports is “the best drama you can ask for.” Where film and TV can be predictable, “sports tends not to be predictable.” “There’s something extremely calming about it,” says Leonard. When I think of red-faced men leaping from their seats, shouting at the TV during games, I question this statement, but perhaps there is a release. Sports are a socially acceptable way for men to express rage and joy in a society that values stoicism.

Without the distraction of various spring playoffs, attention shifted to other issues. Many have noted that the recent Black Lives Matter protests would not have been so well attended if the current unemployment rate weren’t so high. One has to wonder, would fewer people have taken to the streets if there had been NBA playoffs to watch? Would men and their guns have filled the Michigan State Capitol if the Red Wings were playing in the Stanley Cup Finals?

“We need some sort of outlet,” said Leonard. To satisfy the sports craving, Leonard and his 10-year-old have been watching the 30 for 30 documentaries, The Last Dance, and the occasional replay of an old game.

Retired political scientist Nancy Cohen was looking forward to a break from all the sports when life as we knew it shut down. Instead, her husband, an avid sports fan who is in failing health, has fallen down the rabbit hole of archived games. “It’s driving me crazy…the incessant noise of whatever game is on in the background. I thought things would change and they didn’t.” Because Cohen’s husband is immuno-compromised, they stay in as much as possible, making the television a significant outlet. She insists she is not anti-sports, though. “I grew up watching the Boston Patriots, he and his brothers grew up watching sports with their dad,” she reflects. “A long time ago we discovered bull riding and we watch that together.”

Beyond the general longing for sports and the possible withdrawal people are experiencing, there are multi-billion dollar industries suffering. Even when they play sports again, it will be without an audience. The U.S. Open and Indianapolis 500 will air on TV, but without fans in the stands. Vendors and concessions people and scalpers will suffer. But hopefully viewers will find some solace in watching players compete in empty stadiums. As Cohen said, “anchoring ourselves for an hour into forgetfulness.”

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The Hanson Brothers from Slap Shot can’t wait for the return of sports.

Mia McCullough

Mia McCullough is a playwright and filmmaker. Her plays have been seen around the country at various theatres including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Red Fern Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, and Chicago Dramatists. Season One of her web series The Haven is available on OTV/ www.weareo.tv and her book Transforming Reality, on the creative writing process, is available on www.lulu.com.

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